Rome Was Not Destroyed In A Day By Simon Kolawole

Sadiq Daba, the actor, ran into some serious health issues recently. He cried out for financial help to undergo foreign treatment. Pronto, Nigerians reacted overwhelmingly. But wait. I did not hear anybody talk about Daba’s religion or ethnic group. The people who tweeted and retweeted his appeal for help, and those who contributed money, were certainly not from his village. I was so so so so so happy. It confirmed, yet again, my pet theory about Nigeria — that we do not hate each other. We are just victims of the unending political manipulation of ethnic and religious identities for selfish gain. Evidently, ordinary Nigerians have the “Nigerian spirit” in their DNA.

My grandmother, God rest her sweet soul, shaped my worldview when I was a little boy growing under her care. She had this amazing ability to be so proud of her Yoruba heritage and at the same time celebrating the best in people of other tongues. In the days of Operation Feed the Nation, launched by the military government of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo in the late 1970s, we planted tomato, maize and spinach in our garden. One day, when the tomatoes were ripe, Mama told me: “Have you noticed that when the tomato in the north is out of season, our own is due for harvest? That shows you God wants us to live together, to complement each other.”

I did not understand much of modernised agricultural practices then — I would have argued with her that you could have both tomato species all-season! But, forget my mischief, she was so broadminded. It must have rubbed off on her offspring. When my father’s younger sister wanted to marry a Muslim, she maybe thought Mama would not like it. As I was told, my aunty introduced her fiancé as “Moses”. It was only when their children (that is, my cousins) were being named Hakeem, Sherifat and Ibrahim that the family realised “Moses” was actually “Mustapha”! Mama, I was told, laughed off the trick with a rhetorical question: “Were we not all created by the same God?”

Indeed. I have met extremists and chauvinists from across religions and races. I am yet to hear anyone declare that we were not created by the same God. One of the most astonishing things about life, to me, is the fact that although we can choose to be Muslims or Christians, and so on, nobody can choose to be Hausa, Fulani, Igbo, Yoruba or whatever. We just woke up one day to find ourselves as members of one ethnic group or the other. It was not our making. So why should you discriminate against me, and hate me, on the basis of an ethnic identity that is beyond my control? Is it my fault that I was born into a family that was clearly not my choice?

In this “mindsets” series, my goal is to challenge the way we think about Nigeria. I am fully persuaded that since we have been doing things the same way for ages and we have been getting essentially the same results, the time has come for us to challenge our fundamental assumptions and thinking — and begin to consciously do things differently. As many commentators, analysts and public speakers have been pointing out over time, we need to reform our mindsets. As a man thinks in his heart, so is he. A mind moulded with hate, prejudice, greed and inordinate ambition will produce nothing but hate, prejudice, greed and inordinate ambition.

In the first part of this series, I wrote on “The President Nigeria Badly Needs” (January 7, 2018). I challenged our obsession with seasonal political calculations and permutations. We build our hopes on false dawns and heat-of-the-moment excitements every four years — and end up with more of the same. Something has to change. In the second instalment, “The Spirit of Lagos That Nigeria Needs” (January 28, 2018), I revisited the now rested “Spirit of Lagos”, a reorientation campaign by the TBWA Consortium, in partnership with the Lagos state government. I said Nigerian leaders and the citizens need to cultivate new mindsets to be able to build a new Nigeria.

Today, I am going a little bit practical on how we can renew our minds. There is a saying that Rome was not built in a day, a proverb originated by the 19th century English playwright, John Heywood, who also gave us immortal expressions such as “out of sight out of mind”, “better late than never”, and “the more the merrier”. He said Rome wasn’t built in a day “but they were laying bricks every hour”. This, in some sense, tells us the value of consistent hard work, perseverance and conscious efforts at construction. If Nigeria is going to change, therefore, we must alienate those who see themselves, first and foremost, as ethno-religious champions. It all starts in the mind.

But, pardon me, Rome was not destroyed in a day either. It took ages to build the city but took a much shorter time to destroy it. Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 AD. In three days, they looted, burnt and wrecked the beautiful city. That hastened the collapse of the Roman Empire. Same thing applies here: the destruction of Nigeria by ethnic champions and religious bigots will not happen in one day — it is a gradual, steady process. That is why we the people must guard our hearts jealously before we are recruited into the hate brigade under different guises. Those already recruited can decide to desert straightaway. We need to build, not destroy.

My suggestions. To start with, do not participate in the sharing of messages and materials that are clearly intended to preach hate and prejudice. Saying “shared as received” is pure hypocrisy. You can be critical of leadership without attacking or disparaging their religions and ethnic origins. As a matter of principle, I do not share messages that are clearly meant to spread hate. It is a duty I owe my conscience. We all have terrible things to say about other people. If we do not allow love to guard our hearts, we will keep adding fuel to fire. Therefore, before you press the “send” or “forward” button, ask yourself: what is my motive? Unto thyself, be honest.

Also, do not feed your children with hate and prejudice. Fill their hearts with edifying things. A senior colleague of mine, a Muslim, married a Christian, who then converted to Islam. He told me he once engaged the services of a cleric to teach his children the Qur’an every Sunday. One day, he overheard the cleric telling the children not to drink from the same cup or eat from the same plate with their aunts, who were living with them, because they were “infidels”. My colleague fired the “afa” on the spot. He remains a devout Muslim, sure, but he saw danger and immediately quenched it. This kind of hate messaging certainly fuelled the mindset that birthed Boko Haram.

This is how hate works: it focuses on what divides us rather than what unites us. If there are Qur’anic verses that say Muslims should love and care for Christians, the hate merchants will focus on where Christians are called “infidels”. If there are verses in the Bible that say “love your neighbour as yourself”, the messengers of hate will focus on “what fellowship does light have with darkness?” There is nothing you want to justify with the scriptures that you won’t find. If you truly have love in your heart, you will focus on the verses of love. The God that forbade eating four-footed creatures is the same God that ordered Apostle Peter, in a trance, to kill and eat! To the pure all things are pure.

And this is how prejudice works: because Chief Obafami Awolowo did not declare Oduduwa Republic in solidarity with Biafra in 1967, every Yoruba is a traitor — including the one that was born early this morning. Because an Igbo chap was arrested for 419, every Igbo person — dead, living or unborn — is a fraudster. Because Barkin Zuwo struggled with speaking English, every northerner is an illiterate; in fact, no northerner has a brain. Because of the insane activities of ISIS and Boko Haram, every Muslim is a terrorist, including your friend. Tragically, there are people that the only thing they can see in you is your language or religion, not the content of your character.

Let me quickly say this before I shut down my laptop and take a stroll: it is very difficult to resist the message of hate and prejudice in a society already polluted by manipulative politicians, their overpaid sidekicks and our inept leaders. I know. When everybody is saying there is casting down, it is very difficult to go against the grain and say there is lifting up. You just go with the flow. But maybe the “casting down” gang is not as big as the “lifting up” brigade — just that the latter has been intimidated into silence. They must begin to speak out. Rome was not destroyed in a day. Those working to destroy Nigeria neither sleep nor slumber.

As for me and my house, we resolved long ago that we would never feed our children with hate, prejudices and biases. These things are usually passed on from generation to generation. I resolved to follow the example of my grandmother by celebrating the best in others rather than focusing on their worst. I would rather talk about the dignity in labour you find among the Hausa, the creativity among the Igbo and the industry among the Yoruba. Accuse me of living in denial and I will accuse you of living in bitterness. Accuse me of being politically correct and I will accuse you of being self-righteous . Accuse me of being naïve and I will accuse you of being jaundiced. It’s all in the mind.

Shall We Tell The President By Simon Kolawole

If I may quickly say this, I was not really a fan of Gen. Muhammadu Buhari until I read his interview in TheNEWS magazine sometime in 1994 — nine years after he was overthrown in a coup by General Ibrahim Babangida. Questioned on the things he got wrong as military head of state, Buhari replied candidly (and I paraphrase): “We made mistakes, but they were genuine mistakes… we were in a hurry to change Nigeria.” That instantly won me over. His perceived highhandedness was not for personal profit; it was in desperation to reform Nigerians. In one sentence, I saw honesty, I saw patriotism and I saw authenticity. I became his disciple from a distance.

I started dreaming of a Buhari presidency precisely in 1998. I can’t remember everything now, but I was then the Features Editor of THISDAY. Mr. Victor Ifijeh, then the Editor, drew my attention to a public lecture on leadership by Buhari and asked me to write a “Man in the News” feature on him for the Friday Review section. After going through Buhari’s speech, whose details I cannot now recollect (which means I’m finally getting old), I convinced myself that this was the kind of leader Nigeria badly needed. I started praying that one day, Buhari would lead Nigeria again. The inimitable Gen. Sani Abacha was the head of state then.

I would later get close to Buhari. I sized him up at close quarters and made my conclusions. One, he is very passionate about the progress of Nigeria. He believes that the country can be far better than this. Two, he believes the major problem obstructing our progress is leadership deficiency. In an interview I had with him in March 2001, he complained about the growing lawlessness in the land under President Olusegun Obasanjo’s leadership, concluding: “Instead of the dog wagging the tail, it is the tail that is wagging the dog.” Three, he told me in May 2009 that Nigeria had been ruled by “leaders without conscience”, and that was why we had not developed “despite all our resources”.

I saw in Buhari a leader who would not spend his days in office feathering his nest. I saw a leader who would not condone stealing of public funds. I saw in him a strong personality who would take a decision and stand by it, not being tossed by every wind of doctrine. However, unlike most of the modern-day Buhari fans, I was very much aware of his limitations. I knew he would be highly constrained by his worldview. I worried about his economic philosophy. I also worried about his likely choice of core team members. Above all, I knew his handling of the Nigerian situation as a military man was not replicable in a democracy. I was quite realistic.

In truth, I was not expecting magic in the event of him becoming president. I did not expect him to change Nigeria and Nigerians in four years, much less in 10 months. It so happened that in 2015, after three failed attempts, Buhari became the choice presidential candidate. The anti-Jonathan movement found a ready symbol of change in Buhari. They quickly created him in the image they wanted: a flawless magician, the ultimate messiah. I was very worried for Buhari at some point. For instance, on January 25, 2015 — more than two months before he won the election — I did foresee trouble in an article with the title: “Buhari and the Burden of Expectations.”

I wrote: “To be honest, I don’t know whether to rejoice or sympathise with Gen. Muhammadu Buhari anytime I read all the sweet comments about him on social media — especially on Twitter. I don’t know any presidential candidate who has been so idolised in recent times — which is an excellent accolade any politician will gladly take. On the one hand, it is good for him. He will not be complaining at all. No politician will complain about such good fortune, especially with only a few weeks to an election. On the other hand, my God! The expectations are sky-high. Incredible. From what I am reading, Buhari is expected to perform nothing short of magic in Aso Rock…”

I am, therefore, not surprised by the increasing murmurings and grumblings against Buhari in less than 10 months. A country perpetually reliant on fuel imports, littered with bad roads and sick hospitals, living in darkness, churning out illiterates as graduates — let’s face it: the turn-around maintenance of Nigeria will take longer than 10 months. I’ve always told my friends no president can transform Nigeria in four years or even eight years. The most important thing, I keep emphasising, is to have patriotic and competent leadership taking us in the right direction. That way, we would know that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory ahead.

Having said that, however, I am really getting worried about Buhari’s second coming. Yes, he has confronted Boko Haram decisively. Although the jury is still out, at least the soldiers are no longer running away to Cameroon on “tactical manoeuvre” or complaining about embezzled allowances. For once, there is sustained seriousness in the war on terror. Yes, Buhari has laid down the marker in his anti-graft war, even if it is not all-encompassing. At least, there is some activity on that front. We could use a more comprehensive strategy that includes moral suasion as well as institutional and administrative reforms, in addition to enforcement. Something is happening all the same.

But I worry about Buhari’s speed and economic philosophy. I admit that he met enormous challenges on ground. Only a magician would have killed all the cockroaches, mosquitoes and rats within 10 months. The PDP brigade, still hurting from their humiliation in the general election, are trying to force the issue, trying to brand Buhari as a failure already — yet their party had 16 whole years to address power shortage, dependence on fuel imports, infrastructural decay, comatose healthcare and stunted education. They wasted a golden opportunity. They are certainly not in a good position to describe Buhari as a failure before his first anniversary in office.

Nevertheless, I am very disturbed that Buhari does not yet have an economic direction. Neither is there an anchor. There is no clarity. What we are getting are mixed messages, bits and pieces here and there. I am hearing sweet statements and poetic promises, a lot of rhymes and alliterations, from APC leaders and ministers. There is no proper articulation so that we can have an idea of where we are headed. There are so many dots that are not connecting. I have this impression everybody is just doing their own thing without any overarching strategy to connect these dots. I can’t see coherence. I can’t see a roadmap. I can’t see what to hold on to.

Agreed, Buhari is not an economist. But you don’t have to be an economist to lead a nation to prosperity. All you need is a damn good economic team worth its onions. The team must have an anchor. We are neck-deep in an economic crisis and this requires emergency reaction. Even though Buhari is a strong character who stands by what he believes in, there must also be some flexibility. Economic crises are better tackled with a combination of antidotes. It is good that Buhari is a patriot and an honest man. It is good that Buhari means well. But meaning well does not solve these problems. He must also do well. The economy is in limbo, let’s be honest about it.

Mr. President, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. We need to see your development blueprint. We want to understand your policies, programmes and strategies. We want to see the goals and the goalposts. Your party says one thing today, you say another tomorrow. That you met a mess on ground is the same reason the majority of voters chose you. If they wanted the mess to continue, they would have maintained the status quo. And while we cannot expect you to clear the mess in 10 months, we need a mental picture of where you are taking us. I have no doubt that you can turn out to be the best Nigerian president ever, but where is the beef?
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…

BUHARI AND MTN

On Tuesday, when President Muhammadu Buhari accused MTN of “aiding” the killing of 10,000 Nigerians by Boko Haram, I shuddered a bit. The president shouldn’t be making such public statements, I told myself. MTN clearly erred by failing to register 5.1 million subscribers and many of us have condemned the telecoms giant, but such a weighty allegation coming from the president is unnecessary — in my opinion. It is good that there finally seems to be a headway in the resolution of the issue, and I hope a good lesson has been learnt by all concerned, from operators to regulators. Valuable.

NNPC CONFUSION

Kindly give me a call if you understand what Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, minister of state for petroleum resources, is up to. When he became NNPC GMD last year, he reduced the directorates to four, saying we needed a “trim” organisation. Now that he is minister, he has increased them to seven “fat” units. He calls them “independent” units, meaning they are… erm… independent. Yet he says this is not “unbundling”. Independent but not unbundled? Independent? And I understand NNPC is fast becoming family business. At this rate, Diezani Alison-Madueke, former petroleum minister, may end up as a saint in record time. Nigeria!

SEAT BELTS

One lesson to be learnt from Sunday’s tragic accident that claimed the lives of James Ocholi, minister of state for labour, his wife and son, is that using seat belts is advisable no matter where you sit. Generally, only those on the front seats use belts. There is also the issue of overspeeding. Without excessive speeding, many accidents would not be fatal. Vehicles are easier to control within reasonable speeding, although our lawmakers are fighting to prevent the introduction of speed limiters by FRSC. Ocholi was such a lovely and lively man. My heartfelt condolences to his young family. Heart-rending.

MILES APART

Nigeria’s fault lines are easily magnified, as we saw yet again in the Mile 12 market crisis in Lagos. We were told a pregnant Yoruba woman was knocked down by a “Hausa” (probably not Hausa but a northerner or even Chadian) motorcyclist. In a normal society, the first thing is to get emergency treatment for the victim, not to ask of the culprit’s ethnicity. (It could well have been a Yoruba or Ibibio motorcyclist!) You then take the offender to the police for the law to take its course. But it ended up as Hausa vs Yoruba. Such a primitive pattern. Senseless.

Buharinomics And The Endgame Scenarios, By Simon Kolawole

I love mathematics — it’s the calculations I can’t stand. Check this out: evaluate (1/2 – 1/4 – 1/8 – 1/16 + …) – 1. Goodness me, what’s that about? But, at least, mathematics is precision science. One plus one will always be equal to one. Economics, however, is not precision science. It is social science. And in social science, you can’t always achieve precision in analysing behaviour. Humans can react to the same stimulus differently. Thus, economists say “on the one hand” and “on the other hand”, taking into account the variables. They say “all things being equal” for a reason. An economic policy can work in Kano and fail in Katsina. But mathematics works everywhere.

Curiously, many economists and commentators seem to be casting Nigeria’s economic crisis as a mathematical problem. Their attitude is: you either use my formula to solve the problem or you will perish in hell. Anyone who disagrees with them is an “economic illiterate” or “naira killer”. I would rather think that whatever step we take today is an experiment: we still cannot say for sure what the end result would be. Some policies work in the short run and damage the economy in the long run. Some bring untold hardship in the short run and prosperity in the long run. Various countries have experimented with same policies and experienced different results.

Public debate in Nigeria is never civilised. To disagree on policy issues is a universal phenomenon, but the name-calling in Nigeria is simply amazing. Personal opinions are presented as canon and alternative views treated as blasphemy. Yet opinions must differ.

When the Asian financial crisis broke out in 1997, the affected countries chose different paths to recovery. Thailand, South Korea and Indonesia adopted an IMF-inspired structural adjustment programme (SAP) and slowly recovered. Mahathir Mohammad, then prime minister of Malaysia, rejected IMF’s prescriptions, including devaluation — yet the economy also slowly recovered. Those who opposed Mohammad’s obstinacy would later agree that whatever he was smoking was of high quality.

Malaysia’s case was quite interesting. As the crisis threatened to topple the economy, Mohammad refused all entreaties to float or devalue the ringgit, which was then an international currency. Within weeks, it had lost 50% of its value following speculative attacks, exchanging at 4.57 to $1 — up from 2.50. The stock market went into a meltdown. Rating agencies described Malaysian stock as “junk”. But Mohammad remained stubborn. He arbitrarily fixed the exchange rate at 3.80 to the dollar and stopped the ringgit from being traded abroad. Mohammad imposed tough capital controls, making it impossible for foreign portfolio funds to move out of Malaysia until after at least a year of investment. Initially, the economy contracted. Things went haywire. Foreign investors shunned Malaysia. Mohammad became a laughing stock. But he was flexible and kept tinkering. Things began to settle. Currency speculators lost out. Forex outflows dropped significantly. The overcrowded, troubled banking sector was consolidated. He then relaxed, and later removed, capital controls as exports rose and the country’s current account deficit moved to surplus. Within three years, the economy picked up.

It, therefore, baffles me when people think there is only one way to tackle a crisis and that their way is the only way. Of course, President Muhammadu Buhari is not Mahathir Mohammad and Nigeria is not Malaysia. Malaysia was an industrialised country before the crisis, unlike Nigeria. And we should remember Malaysia already had sound economic, infrastructural and institutional backbone. It was like an injured player returning to the game, not a rookie like Nigeria being plucked straight from the academy.

Parallels are, therefore, not to be overly drawn. On the one hand and on the other hand, the variables are different, all things being equal. Nigeria, a one-track economy, is facing its own potentially defining crisis. The naira is on a spiral. Clearly, the immediate cause is that oil price has fallen, leading to a massive reduction in forex inflow, leading to scarcity of forex, leading to rationing of forex, leading to a freefall of the naira in the open market. It is obviously not Buhari’s fault.

If oil price fell to $30 under President Goodluck Jonathan, we would experience similar challenges. Also, if oil price rises to $120 under Buhari — as we witnessed under Jonathan — there would be enough petrodollars to make everybody happy. We must never forget this fact in the midst of these unending arguments. Our disagreement is basically how to get out of this mess which is damaging the economy day by day.

Those who favour official devaluation of the national currency think it will address the forex inflow crisis, boost foreign investors’ confidence, stem the outflow of investors’ funds, remove forex market distortions and increase the revenue due to the three tiers of government — which is currently shared at N197 to $1 when indeed the street value is over N300 — and help wipe off the budget deficits. They think the naira has already devalued itself, in any case, and general prices have adjusted, but the government keeps deceiving itself by pretending N197 makes sense.

But there is another side to the argument, led by President Buhari himself. He says he will not “kill” the naira by devaluing it, and has picked out specific sectors he wants to make forex available to at N197 to a dollar. He believes only exporting countries benefit from currency devaluation.

The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has listed dozens of imported items it will not fund as part of the rationing of the forex reserves which are getting drained by the day. The CBN insists it will continue to make forex available only to “critical sectors”, and those who want to import non-essential items should source their forex elsewhere. The stated aim is to stimulate domestic production.

To be sure, I do not think, for one second, that simply restricting forex allocations will solve the problem. Actually, I have always argued that Nigeria’s real sector needs to be supported with solid infrastructure and generous incentives to fast-track industrialisation and purge ourselves of this importation epidemic and forex illness. We can even use tariff to discourage imports, even though the World Trade Organisation (WTO) will attempt to crucify us for raising barriers to “free trade”.

But we must stop casting our current economic crisis in the single narrative of devaluation. We are dealing with complex human behaviour with several variables. Since Buhari, the president, has maintained that he will not devalue the naira, then we would have to live with that for now. We cannot overrule him. I have now chosen to look at the different endgame scenarios for Buharinomics. There are two extreme scenarios I want to share.

The first, which I call the “Sai Buhari!” scenario, is that things work out fine in the end. Imports drop sharply; pressure on naira falls; exchange rate stabilises; speculators bite the dust; investment in social infrastructure yields massive results; domestic manufacturing picks up; and we gradually overcome this economic hardship within three years. Sai Buhari!

The second scenario, the “Chai Buhari!” one, sees things get out of hand: naira slips into coma as speculators enjoy a free ride; black market hits N1000 to $1; prices of goods and services go gaga; the CBN can no longer make forex available for imports; we are queuing up to buy milk, salt and rice; unemployment soars as more factories close down; foreign investors shun Nigeria; Buhari then runs to the IMF for a $20 billion bailout as violent protests break out nationwide; IMF asks Buhari to devalue the naira, remove capital controls, abolish electricity subsidy, increase fuel price, and cut social spending; and Buhari painfully capitulates. Chai Buhari!

If I claim to know the endgame of Buharinomics, I lie. This is not mathematics. This is about how economic agents will interact and react under a different temperature, humidity and pressure. The fact that things are not going well today does not mean we are doomed. Indeed, with economic reform, things tend to get worse before they get better. That is why we have to look not just as short-term pains but also long-term gains. That is why I ultimately favour flexibility.

In the Malaysia case, Mohammad was flexible. He resisted the IMF, yes, but even in his own policies, he evaluated results from time to time and acted with the latest information and within unfolding realities. Meanwhile, there are certainly other possible endgame scenarios. For instance, if oil price picks up along the way, all this debate becomes an academic exercise.

Moreover, there are rumours that some “saboteurs” are bent on making sure Buhari devalues the naira, and they will do anything to depress the naira in order to force the issue. Some bankers, currency speculators and top government officials are allegedly involved in the conspiracy. If this is true, it is yet another scenario I have not painted — the scenario where things that work in other countries spectacularly fail here because of the “Nigerian factor”. The endgame, then, remains highly unpredictable.